By Léo Azambuja

Left to right, NTBG Visitor Program Manager Jackie Nielsen, Cozy Bowl Noodles owner Dominique Chamber, and NTBG Event Manager Gwen Silva. Photo by Léo Azambuja

As soon as Kaua‘i relaxed travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic back in April, the staff at National Tropical Botanical Garden began drafting a plan that would benefit visitors, local crafters and producers, and the garden itself.

On May 6, kumu Aokai blessed the brand new Aloha Market at NTBG’s South Shore Visitor Center. Since then, the market has been increasing its number of vendors and gaining popularity among visitors and residents.

“This is a place where we can open safely to allow (visitors) to see how special we are, with a sincere blessing of aloha,” said Jackie Nielsen, Visitor Program Manager at NTBG. “We don’t want this to be a market that’s just hustle and bustle, and just about spending. It’s about understanding and appreciating what Kaua‘i has to offer, and why we’re special.”

On its opening day, the Aloha Market had 25 vendors. In its third week, there were already 30 vendors.

“We will slowly have more room to increase. We want to be aware that we manage the expectations of all the vendors, and that we can do it safely. So, as the island opens up more, we will have more capacity to have more vendors,” Nielsen said.

Noi Wirat of Wirat Family Farm. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The Aloha Market’s footprint is unconventional. Rather than being placed in rows, the vendors are spread throughout the property, many of them set up in spots along a walking path meandering through the gardens.

A handful of producers sell traditional crops, plus produce you can’t easily find in other markets, such as ulu (breadfruit), coconut, rambutan, mangosteen and longan. You’ll also find local honey, dehydrated Kaua‘i-grown fruit, popsicles made with seasonal fruits, poke bowls, pad thai, burgers, mochi, arts and crafts, CBD oil, and much more.

“One of our vendors, she makes gluten-free noodles out of ulu, and they’re amazing and delicious. You don’t see that anywhere. And we have another lady that sells chocolate-covered crickets,” Nielsen said. “Those are the kinds of cool things that you see here.”

When the clock hits 12:30, everyone strolls to a large open grass area to watch award-winning kumu hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin and her hula dancers perform. Hungry? A food truck is parked right on the lawn, next to the show.

Some of the tropical produce available at the Aloha Market are hard to find elsewhere. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The market’s design may set its idyllic mood, but what really gives its soul are the vendors and what they bring.

“Each vendor is a local vendor. It’s not like we have large corporations coming in,” Nielsen said. “These are community members, these are family members that are sewing at night when their kids are asleep, or harvesting a local honey, or the Kaua‘i hemp — that’s local, organic CBD oil. So, everything here pretty much is from Kaua‘i.”

She said NTBG always had an interest in organizing a farmers market as a way of promoting sustainability and supporting local growers.

“But pre-pandemic, there wasn’t really an opportunity for us, we didn’t have the means and time to establish one,” said Nielsen, adding that during the pandemic, they had enough time to reevaluate the idea. As the island’s economy started to open up again, local vendors wanted a safe, outdoor venue. So, Nielsen, along with NTBG Event Manager Gwen Silva, brainstormed what they could do for a win-win outcome.

“Usually, our winter and our summer craft fairs are really large and draw a huge audience. We thought, let’s merge our craft fairs with a farmers market and offer it weekly,” Nielsen said. “We have parking, we have restrooms, we have an outdoor facility with lots of space. So, all the pieces kind of aligned together.

Additionally, before the pandemic, NTBG used to offer free hula shows on Thursdays. So, they brought the Thursday hula show back and timed it right around lunch time.

Kumu hula Leina‘ala Pavao Jardin flanked by two of her hula students. Photo by Léo Azambuja

“Now we’re helping support the local community with the vendors that are here. All the Kaua‘i-grown, Kaua‘i-made producers, they now have a steady showcase to be able to display their amazing crafts and arts and trades,” Nielsen said.

Besides helping the local economy, the new Aloha Market is also boosting business at NTBG.

“We’re getting more people to know about the gardens and the tours,” said Nielsen, adding they have been selling out tours, increasing memberships and sales in the visitor center’s shop, and people are becoming more conscious of the garden’s purpose.

The Aloha Market is open every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s South Shore Visitor Center, across the road from the Spouting Horn in Po‘ipū. The free hula show is at 12:30 p.m. Call (808) 742-2623 for more information. Potential vendors can email Gwen Silva at for inquiries.

“To me, the market represents Kaua‘i as a unified, accepting place where we have aloha, that we’re happy to welcome back guests,” Nielsen said.

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